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Irish Rugby Recovering from Hangover

Tommy CreanContributor IApril 21, 2010

LIMERICK, IRELAND - APRIL 10:   Mick O'Driscoll of Munster holds onto the ball during the Heineken Cup quarter final match between Munster and Northampton Saints at Thomond Park on April 10, 2010 in Limerick, Ireland.  (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)
David Rogers/Getty Images

Following last year’s heroics in claiming the Grand Slam, most neutrals would consider Irish rugby to have suffered a major hangover this season.

The national side performed poorly in the Six Nations with consideration to the high standards they have set themselves with several recent Triple Crown successes.

They were outplayed and outmuscled by the French in Paris and were shell-shocked by a Dan Parks-inspired Scotland in the last ever international fixture to be played at temporary home, Croke Park.

However, the lack of success at national level this season appears to have only instilled more hunger into players at provincial level.

Leinster are enjoying another excellent season, as they currently top the Magners League table and are still on course in the hunt for European glory.

The current holders of the Heineken Cup just about squeezed through their clash with Clermont Auvergne by the minimum difference and have every chance of retaining their crown they captured for the first time in 2009.

Outright favourites, Toulouse, await the Dublin-based side at the Stadium Municipal Toulouse next weekend and will offer Brian O’Driscoll and company one of the toughest tests of their careers.

Meanwhile, for Ireland’s most well known and successful side, Munster, it's just business as usual with a usual high-lying position in the Magners, while still being in with a chance of European glory.

Like Leinster, they travel to France to take on Biarritz at the semi final stage in search of yet another Heineken Cup final appearance and are marginal favourites to progress.

They appear to be coming into form at the right time and will be quietly confident of making it to the final at least.

Ulster are the only Irish side without a chance of collecting silverware at this stage, but still have had some high points, with the home win over Stade Francais being such an example.

They narrowly failed to qualify from the group stage, but have since endured a worrying dip in form in the Magners League, which could cost the side dearly on and off the field.

The reasoning for this is simple.

The IRFU use the leagues as a basis to decide which three of its teams qualify for the Heineken Cup which, to date, has always been Leinster, Munster and Ulster.

But the fourth professional side have been gaining considerable ground on Ulster, leaving the northerners needing to pick up vital points sooner rather than later to secure qualification.

To be fair to Connacht, the traditional whipping boys in Irish rugby, they do not have the resources to compete at the level of the other three provinces.

But they have performed above expectations yet again, having reached the reached the semi-final stage of the Amlin Challenge Cup, where they will host a Jonny Wilkinson inspired Toulon outfit next weekend.

On paper, the current Top 14 leaders will provide an immense challenge for the Westerners and it is difficult to see the French side coming.

They are a credit to outgoing director of rugby, Michael Bradley, who has decided to move on at the end of the season after seven years in charge.

However, with recent and perhaps unfortunate narrow defeats to Munster and Leinster in the Magners League, they are certainly the two sides capable of turning over another French side.

Just ask Montpellier and Bourgoin, some of Connacht’s scalps along the way so far.

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